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The dog looked at her as if he understood. His eyes reflected love and his mouth formed a Mona Lisa smile.
Molly welcomed the feel of the dog's fur on her palm. In some ways, it reminded her of family—unconditional love, companionship and someone waiting for her when she walked through the door at night. No, it wasn't "Honey, I'm home," but a wagging tail to lift her spirit. That would be much better than the silence that now greeted her.
"He likes you, Miss Manning."
Molly let her hand slip from the dog's fur. "He likes you, too, Adam. He knows how to choose good friends."
Adam nodded, his thick glasses giving him cartoon eyes. "Dogs have a good mind. They're not like people. They're lovable and willing to forgive."
Her student's amazing insight pinged against her heart as she moved back toward the school's entrance. He had wisdom beyond his years. Knowing Adam's troubles, Molly understood the boy's conviction had deeper meaning for her than most people would register. Forgive? She'd never forgiven
herself for what she'd done. She'd ignored her Christian upbringing and morals while in high school, and the shame still crashed down on her and drove her to prove to herself she was worthy of God's blessings.
"Do you have a minute?"
Molly spun around, hearing Rob Dyson's call.
"You want me?" She pointed to herself with her index finger. Her gaze drifted from her principal to the good-looking gentleman beside him.
She held up a finger andturned back to Adam, who'd knelt beside the dog, probably wanting a kiss of his own. "Let's get Rowdy into the van. The bell's going to ring. You don't want to be late for class, do you?" Dumb comment. Adam would love to be late, but she couldn't add that to his other misdemeanors. She glanced over her shoulder at her principal waiting for her in the school entrance foyer.
Adam gave her a teasing smirk. "It's only career day."
She folded her arms across her chest, managing a frown. "But that's important. In a few years, you'll be looking for a job. We all need to know what's possible for us to make our dreams come true." The words smacked her with the truth once again.
The middle-schooler pondered her comment before rising and finally steered Rowdy toward the van that would take him back to the dog shelter. The Labrador retriever climbed into the vehicle, and Adam gave the dog a wave. The boy then ambled back into the school building and down the hallway.
The principal moseyed toward Molly, the handsome stranger following. Before Rob reached her, he eyed his watch. "Is Teacher's Pet done for today?"
She gave him a questioning nod, then lifted her gaze to check on Adam. She wasn't stupid. She needed to make sure the boy turned in the direction of the classrooms and not the cafeteria or a restroom—two of the students' favorite hangouts. When the boy headed in the right direction of his next class, Molly hid a sigh of relief. "Yes. Everyone's accounted for."
"Good." He tilted his head toward the man. "Molly, this is Brent Runyan."
Runyan. The name aroused her interest. So did his amazing eyes. She met his gaze. "Welcome to Montgomery Middle School."
"Thanks," he said, his voice a pleasant rumble. He eyed her a moment before extending his palm.
Molly grasped it, her fingers swallowed in his large hand.
Rob's voice drew her back. "I'm on my way to a meeting, and Brent's doing a career presentation in Joe Edmonds' machine shop. Would you mind showing him the way?"
When she looked into the man's midnight-blue eyes, a warm tingle glided down her arm. She withdrew her hand, trying to control the unfamiliar sensation. Ridiculous. She frowned, managing to get a grip on herself.
Her principal's head drew back. "Look. If you're busy, I'll—"
"No. No. It's fine." She steadied her voice, irritated that the man's presence had thrown her off-kilter. "It's on the way."
"Thanks." Rob grasped Brent's shoulder with a shake. "I'll see you tomorrow at the softball game."
Brent's lips twisted in a crooked smile. "I can't believe you conned me into joining the team."
"We needed a good outfielder," Rob said, shifting his gaze to Molly. "You should see this guy shag a fly ball." He gave Brent's arm another shake. "I hope the class goes well." He took a step backward and glanced at his watch, before lifting his hand in a half-wave.
Molly watched Rob head down the hallway as she mustered the courage to look at Brent again. "The classroom's this way." She beckoned him to follow. "Not far from the teacher's lounge where I'm headed."
A faint grin twitched on his mouth. "You're a teacher."
"Who did you think I was?"
He shrugged. "Teachers don't look the way they did when I was in school."
As heat rose up her neck, Molly diverted the attention from her face to her feet by picking up her pace. "We'd better get you to class. The bell rang a few minutes ago." She paused and waited for him to catch up. "I received a transfer to Montgomery Middle School three years ago. Before that I taught at the elementary school." The reference led her to one of the questions that struck her when she'd heard his last name. "I had a student there with the last name Runyan. Any relationship, by chance?"
Brent gestured ahead of them. "Is that the classroom? I see a man hanging out the door."
"That's Mr. Edmonds."
He tossed her a look. "I'd better hurry."
He charged forward, apologizing to Joe as he drew closer. He reached the door before her shorter legs could get her there. When she caught up, Joe gave her a nod and beckoned Brent inside before she could introduce them.
Molly ambled away from the classroom, disappointed she couldn't ask him her second question, although he'd never answered her first one about her elementary student, Randy Runyan. Before she'd moved too far away, she heard Brent's voice coming through the open doorway. She paused, hoping to hear what he had to say. She hesitated a moment, enjoying the sound of his lively presentation. It's the way her students made her feel some days.
She loved her misunderstood students and suspected that most of the teachers thought she was a few cookies short of a box. Half of them found her students troublesome. Sure, her kids had special needs, but they were curious, eager and hardworking. The Teacher's Pet class gave them confidence and seemed to add an extra bounce to her step. If only life rejuvenated her the way that class did. Yet always, she struggled with the old longing to do more for dogs and kids.
The classroom became quiet, and Molly quickened her steps toward the teachers' lounge. She'd be mortified if Brent found her still in the hallway.
Brent eyed the wall clock, glad the students had run out of questions. During one of the pauses, his mind had snapped back to Molly. He envisioned her fresh-washed look, not a lot of makeup. Her wheat-colored hair had been tied back in a ponytail except for a few wispy strands that fell across her forehead. He couldn't remember one teacher from his high school days being that cute.
Cute? His chest tightened. Women weren't cute. They were charming or attractive or dowdy or They shouldn't be cute and so appealing. He'd felt horrible, ogling her the way he'd done, but her wholesomeness and bright eyes had grabbed his interest.
And Teacher's Pet. What in the world was that?
He forced his thoughts back to the class as he dug his hands into his pockets and cleared his throat.
Edmonds scanned the room. "No more questions?"
The students remained silent.
"Then let's thank our guest speaker, Mr. Runyan from Runyan Industrial Tool Corporation. He's given you a good understanding of the kinds of jobs you might find in that line of work."
A couple of kids applauded, and then others followed as Brent nodded in thanks.
Edmonds peered at the wall clock and then tilted his head toward the doorway. "You have a few minutes. Take a break before next period. The teacher's lounge is close." He took a step toward the exit. "Grab a coffee. The stuff's thick as axle grease, but it'll keep you awake."
Axle grease. Brent guessed the guy had background in auto shop, too.
Edmonds joined Brent at the door and gestured to the right. "Make a left at the next hallway. You'll see a sign on the door."
"Thanks," Brent said, regaining his feeling of freedom. He strode in the direction Edmonds had pointed, and near the end of the hall, he saw the sign—Staff Lounge. He grasped the knob, curious what teachers actually did during their planning period. From stories he'd heard, they did everything but.
When he stepped inside, his curiosity ended. Only one person sat at a round table, flipping through a notebook. Molly.
She looked up and then refocused on her work as she spoke. "Done already?"
He eyed her a moment, weighing the tone of her voice. Uncertainty? Distrust? Caution? He couldn't read her.
Brent followed the scent of the stale coffee across the lounge. Though his back was to her, he sensed Molly's eyes boring through him. He grasped a paper cup and poured the liquid into it. He recalled Joe's accurate description, then held the cup beneath a nearby faucet and added a splash of water. While he wanted to face Molly, he drew out the anticipation.
When he swiveled toward her, he found that his suspicion had been correct. Molly watched him. He stood across the room, eyes riveted to hers, asking himself which one would break the connection first.
He took a sip of the acrid drink to control the unexpected sensation of interest. In his distraction, he broke eye contact.
"Have a seat?" Molly's voice sliced through the silence as she motioned toward one of the chairs at her table.
He ambled toward her, his eyes focused on the coffee while he controlled the feeling skittering through his chest. When he settled in the chair, he forced himself to look up.
Molly captured his gaze. "Are you connected with Runyan Industrial Tool Corporation?"
"I am." The response had flown from his mouth, and he nearly spilled his coffee with the unexpected question. She lowered her eyes a moment, giving him a reprieve. Brent took a deep breath.
Molly seemed to ponder his answer. "I've noticed the building on Rochester Road. It's empty, right?"
This time she'd struck a sour chord. "That's temporary."
She seemed to scrutinize his response, and Brent became more cautious. That building had become a thorn in his finger.
Molly's expression changed. "I imagine the automotive cutbacks must affect your business." A provoking expression seeped to her face, and he sensed her mind working on something.
The look made Brent edgy. "We make tools for many businesses, not just the automotive industry." He took a sip of the bad coffee, eager to change the subject, and he had the question to do just that. "Rob asked you about a Teacher's Pet class. What's that? Some kind of honor-roll program?" Brent imagined the students falling all over themselves to clean her erasers. "I'll admit I was never one of them." He cringed, admitting way too much. Even worse, he was flirting, and he didn't realize he knew how.
She cocked her head. "Far from it."
His head jerked back. "What do you mean?"
She grinned for the first time since he'd entered the room. "Be assured it's not a group of favorite students cleaning chalkboards for extra credit."
Her expression made him smile. "No?" But if it were, he might not mind belonging to the group. His heart gave a thump. The dangerous thought had jumped into his mind without warning. Instinctively, he blinked. "So what is—" The last word vanished beneath a loud brrring.
"The bell," she said, snapping closed her notebook and rising from her chair. "I have to get to my classroom and unlock the door. My students get in trouble if I don't."
She breezed past him, leaving his half question unanswered.
He closed his mouth, recalling that the bell also summoned him to the next career presentation. Not wanting to be late again, Brent strode to the sink, poured out the potent coffee, and tossed the cup into the trash. Teacher's pet? The question settled in his mind, and he speculated what it might be like to be one.
Molly pulled into Stephanie Wright's driveway and hit two short blasts on the horn to signal she'd stopped by. With Steph, she never felt as if she needed to call ahead, although she never stopped anywhere else without calling—even her folks. Her chest clutched, realizing that that was weird. She had great parents, but those bad teen years had ruined her dreams of being a veterinarian and her reputation had put a wedge between her and them. The wedge was hers. Her parents had forgiven her long ago.
Molly slammed the lid on her memories and pushed opened the car door to the sound of yipping and a couple of solid woofs from inside the house. The dining room curtain shifted as she headed toward the porch. She grinned when her friend's border collie's nose pressed against the pane. Steph's smile soon appeared, and she sent Molly a wave.
As Molly bounded up the porch steps, the door opened, and Steph pushed the screen door wider to allow her entrance while managing to keep three dogs from escaping.
"Hello, Fred." Molly scratched her friend's border collie behind the ears and then gave the terrier's fur a fluff and nuzzled her cheek against the Airedale's head. "Who do we have here?"
"Sam, and this one's Trixie." Steph pointed to the terrier.
"Their owners aren't here yet." She glanced at her watch. "They should be coming soon. I have to leave for my other job." She lifted her head, her expression growing curious. "You're grinning." She tapped her index finger against her cheek. "Let me see. I'm guessing most of your kids were absent today."
Molly smiled at Steph's banter. "Sorry to disappoint you, but they were all there." She arched one eyebrow. "But you'll never guess what happened."
"You got a raise?"
"I don't look that happy." With the three dogs tangling around her feet, Molly made her way into the living room, tossed her handbag onto a side table, and plopped into an easy chair. "I met someone."
That comment caught Steph's attention, and a Cheshire cat grin spread across her face. "You mean Mr. Right?"
Air shot from Molly's lungs. "No. Never." Her voice sounded like someone evading the truth.
Steph gave her a questioning look.
"Just kidding," she said, hoping to undo the suspicion she'd caused. "I met Brent Runyan."
Steph's hand flew to her heart. "Wow! Brent Runyan. I'm impressed." Her hand dropped to her side as she settled onto the sofa. "I need a seat so I can contain myself." She leaned forward, emphasizing the Cheshire grin. "Who in the world is Brent Runyan?"
Molly felt her jaw sag as she shook her head at Steph's antics. "You've heard of Runyan Industrial Tool Corporation. The building on Rochester Road."
Steph looked blank.
Molly's arms lifted in a helpless gesture and then dropped to her side. "The empty building on Rochester Road. I told you about it."
Finally recognition sprouted on Steph's face. "Is he the owner?"
"Brent Runyan. Runyan Industrial Tool Corporation. What do you think?"
Steph lifted a shoulder. "Okay, so I'm a little brain dead. I spent my day with five barking dogs."
Hearing the word dogs, all three animals skittered to Steph's side. "Get lost," she said, waving her hand at them before refocusing on Molly.
"You're as bad as some of my students. 'Down' is all you need to say and then show them. They'll catch on."
Steph rolled her eyes. "Let's talk about this Runyan character."
Molly had a better description than character. Good-looking worked for her. Steph's look bored through her, and Molly knew she'd better get on with it. "Okay, I suppose, I can't expect you to remember every empty building I've given a longing look."
"You've eyed a ton of them."
Images flashed through Molly's mind—empty office buildings, industrial businesses, grocery stores. She'd never found one that would work as perfectly as the Runyan building, but the cost was prohibitive. Most buildings were.
"Did you ask this Runyan guy about the building?"
Steph's voice dragged her from her ruminations, and she sank against the cushion. "Not really. When I mentioned it was empty, he said, 'That's temporary.' I question that, though. How long has it been since I've had my eye on that building?"
"It's your guess." Steph unfolded herself from the chair and glanced out the window. "I thought I heard a car."
Molly understood. "I know you have to leave for work."
Steph gave a faint nod and ambled back toward her chair. "I have to wait for the owners to get here and pick up their pooches." She leaned her head against the chair back. "I wish I could get one full-time job instead of two part-times, but as long as I want to do doggie day care, this is it."